i’m the national evil, and i approve of these 30-minute albums

Beck’s hair is longer than his new album.

An interesting phenomenon seems to be occurring among the bands the National Evil cares about: the drastic reduction of album lengths to a lean half hour. He wonders if any of you, dear readers, have noticed this happening to your record collections.

This really kicked off with Everything All the Time by Band of Horses, though that probably shouldn’t count because it was their first album. For all the Evil knew, BOH might just not have had any more good music in them. (Their second album was just as short and equally good.)

Then Spoon released Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Evil dutifully picked up the disc, slipped it into his car stereo, and had almost finished the album by the time he got to work the next morning. When he realized it was only 30 minutes long, he was taken aback. Confused. A muddle of emotions. On the one hand, the album was really good—near great—and its length (or lack of) made the Evil want to immediately start it over at track 1.

On the other hand—hey, they could have fit the entire album on the same CD again. Had Spoon just ripped the Evil off?

A decade-plus of the CD had accustomed the Evil to slogging through bloated, hour-long albums produced by bands that really shouldn’t ever have been inflicting that much music on the listener all at once. 45 minutes seems to be about the upper limit for all but the greatest albums; unless you’re a chunky metal band churning out 8-minute epics, you probably don’t have the quantity of good songs to spew an hour or more of album at the world every two years. He remembers the period in the mid-90s when it seemed every band was straining the waistband of their musical slacks. Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside. Any Tool album. And of course the most bloated monstrosity of all, the dreaded double album: Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and I’m Not Going To Write The Rest of This Long-Ass Album Title. TWO hour-plus CDs, for shame.

History shows again and again that the double album is almost always a mistake. That error is exacerbated with the 70-minute possibilities of a single CD. London Calling fits on one CD, people. You do NOT have 150 minutes of brilliance on hand at any given recording session. (That includes you, too, any hip-hop artist of the last ten years.)

Even R.E.M. fell victim to the Bloat. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is the most underrated album they ever made, but still . . . it’s 65 minutes. Or about four songs too long. This from a band that perfected art in the guise of the tight, three-minute pop song.

Fortunately, after a 12-year break from relevance, R.E.M. released the 30ish-minute Accelerate this year. This just after Super Furry Animals dropped Hey Venus! (love that term: “dropped”), which barely squeaks over the half-hour mark. By this time the Evil had become accustomed to this new order, convinced himself he wasn’t being robbed by the bands he loves, and—most importantly—decided this length-of-album reduction wasn’t the product of floundering creative drive, but a recognition that filling a CD doesn’t equal making the best possible album. Besides, we’ve all got shorter attention spans these days—seriously, are you still even reading this?

Evil has officially endorsed the concept of the half-hour album with the release of Modern Guilt by Beck. It’s good. And it doesn’t feature an ungodly, ten-and-a-half minute train wreck of the kind that ruined the end of The Information.

So. Have you noticed the musical anorexia? How does it make you feel?

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4 thoughts on “i’m the national evil, and i approve of these 30-minute albums”

  1. I like this trend. I was listening to a cd today which is good (Autolux-Future Perfect) but definitely has some songs that are 4:30-5:00 long that should be 3:30-4:00. But I’ll also sometimes take the double album, cause who knows what songs would have been given the old heave ho if they had trimmed it down to one cd. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a great album, skip worthy songs and all.

  2. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time on this planet, it’s that anytime you hear something short, simple, catchy, and repetitive, somebody is trying to sell you something. No matter how good a rock song is, it can’t help but be a commercial jingle, because that is where its roots are. Follow the rock family trees back just a short way, and you hit a bunch of slaves singing work songs and spirituals to sell themselves on the idea that what happens in this life doesn’t matter, all will be put right in heaven. And rock has not swayed at all from this original function. It sells people the idea that no matter what it looks like, they are not slaves to industry, they have not sold out to the Borg, they are super-special and cool because they “get it.”

    So, I have a really hard time taking anything that happens in this genre as positive. Rearranging the seating assignments on the Titanic. It seems to me there’s no hope at all until the damn thing hits the iceberg and gets it over with, but that will probably never happen, short of Armageddon. (Here’s another secret — there’s a whole hell of a lot more power of control to be had in keeping the hands of the doomsday clock fluctuating between 23:55 and 23:59 for all eternity than anybody’s gonna want to throw away reaching for actual midnight).

    Do I have the answers? If I did, I probably wouldn’t be living in a fifth-floor walk-up. But, as die-hard an anorexic as I am, I just can’t get excited thinking rock is getting better and better at perfecting the jingle.

  3. the solution to the double-album paradox: bands should commission a team of musical devotees to listen to their albums-in-progress and help them parse ’em down to 11-song masterpi. evil submits himself and the random rambler as the first two judges.

    as to the titanic . . . maybe you are correct, raul. it did strike the evil, listening to these half-hour records, that maybe bands are just pissed off that most people are ripping off their music, so why go to the effort of producing a longer-playing epic? perhaps they’re fighting the audience over the few lifeboats left . . .

  4. Who is the artist’s best friend? They guy standing over his shoulder with a baseball bat to beat him senseless as soon as the project is finished. A big part of the problem with most bands is that there is no leader, no final word to make the big decisions, so you’re always having to compromise your vision. Art is no place for democracy. That’s why jazz bands, salsa bands, almost always outlive rock bands — they’re typically based on the orchestra tradition, where there’s a single leader carrying all the responsibility, with his name on bass drum, and if you don’t like his decisions, you’re free to leave. That situation almost always works out better in the long run, and does make for tighter albums.

    I don’t really think the whole economic situation with the industry is what killed rock. It goes back to the very roots of the thing as big business, pure and simple. It is an art form that is absolutely dependent on catering to the masses and the lowest common denominator, and that only appears to “progress” in the most superficial ways. Strip off all the production and go back to using traditional instruments, ignore the lyrics, and most rock songs would not sound out of place at a mid-nineteenth century fish-fry.

    Look, music is my first lover. Always has been, always will be. My father was a flamenco guitarist, and I learned to play listening to his record collection, and that’s about as traditional a form as you’re gonna get. Then for the longest time Rock became my religion, and in all honesty it has literally saved my life more than once. But, I do think that if you really love something, the last thing you want is to see it rotting before your eyes for decades on end, and that’s what’s happening. And there comes a time when the most loving thing you can do is to put it out of its misery and move on to join the living.

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